Gunner was born in a bathtub in Turner County, Georgia. His parents, Carl and Bliss, lived in a mobile home near Rebecca, Georgia.

A few weeks before Gunner was born, Carl drove off with the family’s truck — leaving Bliss with all the bills and no way to get to town. Carl couldn’t have known that the most devastating flood in Georgia’s history was on its way or that he would die in his truck trying to cross a washed-out bridge.

Bliss went into labor during the flood of 2077 — just a year before Death Storm began. The nearest hospital was 19 miles away, so Bliss delivered Gunner in her bathtub with the help of her cantankerous neighbor, Judy.

Gunner was born blue in the face with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, but he survived. Two days later, the flood waters rose, forcing Bliss to evacuate with her newborn son.

Since she didn’t have any money, Bliss went to live with Gunner’s grandmother, Maribelle. Maribelle Price was a prickly widow with a bit of a drinking problem. She hadn’t spoken to Bliss or her son-in-law since their shotgun wedding earlier that year, but she had a soft spot for her youngest grandchild.

Maribelle died of cancer when Gunner was six. She’d deeded her house and the surrounding land to her eldest son, Robbie, who lived four miles down the road with his wife and three sons — Barry, Chester, and Robbie Junior.

Robbie let his sister stay in Maribelle’s house but was never very nice to his “sissy” nephew, Gunner. Gunner had a bad stutter and couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a rifle because he’d never had anyone to teach him. As far as Rick was concerned, Gunner was weak, slow, and prone to giving up, and Rick Price didn’t waste time on quitters.

In the wake of Death Storm, most of the neighbors had fled in search of family and stability. The Prices and the Coonses lived together in relative isolation, scrounging food from houses their neighbors had fled.

Supply chains, power grids, and public services had broken down, and when a bomb nuked Atlanta, radioactive dust spread sickness for hundreds of miles. Gangs became the law in Georgia, forcing residents to pay food bribes to keep their families safe.

One month Robbie refused to pay, and his young wife was kidnapped — never to be seen again. Robbie died of cancer a few years later.

Although Gunner’s father was out of the picture, plenty of men drifted in and out of his mother’s life. Some of them were drunks and some were all right, but Bliss kicked most of them out before they could get too comfortable.

Then Rick Snelling drove up the road. Rick was charming, handsome, and a bit of a daredevil. Most of all, he made Bliss feel safe. Rick was making his way up from the Florida panhandle, and, as luck would have it, he’d run out of fuel a few miles from Maribelle’s driveway.

Bliss was instantly taken with Rick, and they married three months later. Soon after, Bliss learned that Rick was a mean drunk, and Gunner — now ten — took it upon himself to protect his mother from Rick’s fits of rage.

One night, Rick took Chester and Robbie Junior out to gather supplies. Robbie Junior was almost seventeen, and Chester was fifteen. Unbeknownst to Bliss, Rick had downed a bottle of whisky he’d found in Grandma Maribelle’s shed, and he drove the boys into a ditch — straight into a spotted oak tree. All three were thrown from the vehicle and killed instantly.

After the deaths of Rick and her nephews, Bliss felt sick with grief. She knew she should have kicked Rick out a long time ago, and it was her fault Chester and Robbie Junior were dead.

Since her youngest nephew had lost everything in the span of three short years, Bliss took it upon herself to look after the thirteen-year-old. Barry, for his part, was extraordinarily resilient. He and Gunner were only a year apart, and they spent most of their days together doing chores and exploring the woods.

Bliss, Gunner, and Barry managed to eek out a living on Grandma Maribelle’s land, planting whatever crops they could reasonably harvest and scrounging the rest of their food from abandoned homes in the area. But the winter Gunner turned fifteen was unusually cold. That January, Bliss got pneumonia, and since there were no hospitals operating in the area, there was nothing the boys could do for her.

After Gunner buried his mother, he and Barry decided it was time to move West. They’d heard there were large settlements of survivors in places like Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, so they piled as many supplies as they could into Rick Snelling’s old hatchback and drove West toward New Mexico.

It took the boys a long time to get through Mississippi. While there was no shortage of abandoned vehicles along the highway to steal, fuel was harder to come by. After many false starts and dozens of miles on foot, they found a couple of horses on an abandoned farm in Louisiana and rode them all the way to Texas.

Just pass Dallas, Gunner and Barry ran into trouble. A big storm was rolling in from the southwest, so they stopped at a ranch to camp for the night. They were staying in a run-down old farmhouse up on a hill, and in the middle of the night, Barry heard a noise.

It had stopped raining, so he went ventured outside to see what it was. The cloud cover had lifted, and he could see a tall glass building gleaming on the horizon.

No building had had power for as long as he could remember, so he knew it had to be one of the settlements they’d heard about on the road. The next morning, he and Gunner set off toward the building, excited to start their new lives.

When the towering compound came into view, a gunshot cracked the air. Gunner looked over at his cousin — just in time to see Barry fall off his horse. More shots fired off in quick succession, and Gunner’s horse threw him to the ground.

That fall dislocated Gunner’s shoulder, but it also saved his life. The horse caught a bullet in the head and two to the body.

Barry was dead, and his horse had run off, so Gunner fled the shooters on foot.

He made his way slowly from Texas to New Mexico, stealing cars and food when he could and sleeping when he grew too tired to continue. After two weeks of wandering, he spotted another building like the one Barry had seen gleaming on the horizon. It wasn’t until a year later that he learned what they were: fortresses full of evil men determined to wipe out the last survivors on the planet.

Eventually Gunner made his way to Arizona and got caught in a shootout between compound people and the Desperados. He hid in the storage room of an abandoned filling station until the coast was clear, but when he emerged, he came face to face with Malcolm Martinez.

Malcolm could have shot Gunner on the spot, but instead he made him a deal: swear his loyalty to the Desperados in exchange for protection and all the food he could eat.

It wasn’t a tough sell. Gunner was exhausted and sick of the road. He had no family, no home — nothing at all except the clothes on his back.

As it turned out, life with the Desperados wasn’t all Gunner had imagined. There wasn’t always enough food, and when rations were scarce, they usually went to Malcolm’s favorites.

To the outside world, Gunner was under Malcolm’s protection, but within the gang, he was on his own. The best of them treated him as Uncle Robbie had; the worst ones beat him and called him names like Rick Snelling. The only guy who didn’t steal his food or make fun of him was Owen Parker.

Owen barely seemed to know Gunner was alive, but the few times they’d spoken, Owen was nice to him.

One time, Gunner took a packet of instant rice that another Desperado had laid claim to. When he found out, the man tackled Gunner to the ground and beat him within an inch of his life.

Gunner had thought his time had come, but just before he blacked out, Owen showed up and pulled the guy off him.

Owen gave the Desperado a nice beating and told him to stay away from Gunner. He pulled Gunner to his feet, took stock of his injuries, and then walked off without a word.

They never spoke about the incident again, but Gunner made a silent promise: He swore to himself that he’d find a way to pay Owen back — no matter what the cost.

***

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